Pace Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012)

Eric Hobsbawm died October 1st at age 95. BBC News has an obituary here.

I know Hobsbawm’s work mostly as a teacher, and I will be using in class his three-volumes The Making of the Modern World as well as the publication of his lectures on nationalism (Nations and Nationalism since 1789: Programme, Myth, Reality (CUP, 1991). Apart from those, what stuck was of course the debate about Hobsbawm’s long-standing defense of communism in its Soviet and Eastern European form. A glance at the Wikipedia entry I linked to at the beginning of this note will convince anyone that this attachment to “real socialism” is what most will remember from him: Hobsbawm as the symbol of the European Left’s convolutions over communism.

In 2003, Tony Judt reviewed Hobsbawm’s memoirs (Interesting Times) for the New York Review of Books (Paywall, but the text was republished in Judt’s Reappraisals, Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, Vintage Books, 2007, 116-129).
There are a few extracts from this review that came back to me while considering Hobsbawm’s death.

He writes intelligible History for literate readers.

Which is certainly the highest praise one could give to any historian (to any writer, for that matters).

Eric Hobsbawm, in short, is a mandarin – a Communist mandarin – with all the confidence and prejudices of his class.

This comes at the end of a part where Judt casts Hobsbawm as a true representative of the British mandarin class, recycling into Communism old traditions of order and a conviction of the British elites’ natural destiny to lead; for those Communism was just “…planned improvement from above by those who know best – a familiar conceit.

And the last one:

The socialism of which Eric Hobsbawm dreamed is no longer an option, and the barbaric dictatorial deviation to which he devoted his life is very largely to blame […]. Eric Hobsbawm is the most naturally gifted historian or our time; but rested and untroubled, he has somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.

Don’t be mistaken here: the whole review is not just Tony Judt taking dear old Eric to the cleaners – but there is a lot of that. While acknowledging the skill and talent of the man as an erudite, a researcher and a writer, Judt does not condone his politics, and he makes it very clear. I find it hard to disagree with him.

Edit: The New Yorker’s obituary essay, where Stephen Kotkin mentions The Invention of Tradition, something I also used as a teacher.

Edit 2: The Guardian’s piece, where no less than Njall Ferguson and Catherine Merridale (always dear to me as the author/compiler of Ivan’s War) consider Hobsbawm’s work. The historian is praised for his large views and interest for long-term structures; Roy Foster reminds everybody of the essays Hobsbawm produced before he wrote his longer syntheses; the Age of… series is justly described as prime material for students and the literate public; Merridale quickly hints at Hobsbawm’s dismissal of oral history, etc. High praise for a great historian – all of it well-deserved, of course. It feels unfair to stick to Hobsbawm’s Communism without considering his work.

Edit 3 (remember: it’s Edits all the way down…): This great piece in the Revue des Livres, by Enzo Traverso, on Eric Hobsbawm’s work, has done the Internet rounds in the last few days. The website of the Revue publishes the piece without footnotes, and they might close the access to it after a while; however, the text was published in the paper version of the review: La Revue Internationale des Livres et des Idées, n° 10, mars-avril 2009. Traversopresents an interesting take on Hobsbawm, especially comparing his work with Francois Furet’s. Unsurprisingly Traverso roots for Hobsbawm against Furet, and you will find nothing here of Tony Judt’s radical criticism. Some things made me cringe (the Soviet people accepting Stalin as a necessary evil to “modernize” them, like the British people accepted Churchill? That reminded me of Braudel’s analysis of Soviet modernization in A History of Civilizations), but I loved what Traverso reveals of Torbjorn L. Knutsen’s analogy (Hobsbawm wrote a tragedy, Furet a comedy). The end is particularly striking, as Traverso finds at the heart of Hobsbawm’s work a peculiar anxiety (“inquiétude“) that resonates deeply with our post-Cold War era. For Furet, Fascism and Communism were a nightmare: changing the world has to start with accepting the world. For Hobsbawm, Communism was a dream that shattered, leaving only ruins and an existential anxiety. Difficult today for someone on the Left not to feel the same anxiety – a feeling Judt documented from his own point of view in Ill Fares the Land.

Good stuff, to be read in full. Oh, it’s in French, too. Get over it.

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